GREEN BAY — The smile and chuckle said far more than the 17 words that came out of Aaron Rodgers’ mouth Wednesday afternoon.
But what the Green Bay Packers quarterback did say was interesting, too.
Now, in his heart of hearts, Rodgers has to know that the San Francisco 49ers could’ve offered Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, a slew of other draft picks, ownership of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, the famous Pier 39 sea lions and the ability to move the Golden Gate Bridge to span the Fox River, and the Packers still were not going to trade Rodgers to the Niners.
After all, the 49ers had beaten the Packers in the 2019 NFC Championship Game to advance to Super Bowl LIV, and despite an injury-riddled down year in 2020, no one thought that coach Kyle Shanahan and his team were suddenly going to stop being a threat in the NFC — especially not if they had a three-time NFL MVP at quarterback.
And so, while multiple NFL sources said on draft day that the 49ers were legitimately interested in pursuing a trade for the reigning MVP — and Niners GM John Lynch later confirmed that the team inquired about Rodgers’ availability, only to be flatly told that Rodgers wasn’t being traded — it’s hard not to look at Sunday night’s matchup at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, between the Packers and 49ers and at least wonder what might’ve been.
Maybe even for Rodgers himself.
Because, when asked whether he ever thought or hoped he’d be traded to the 49ers during the offseason, there was that smile, that chuckle, and that in-no-way-definitive answer.
“Uh, I mean, there were points where I thought anything was possible — definitely,” Rodgers replied during his weekly Q&A session with reporters. “But not a strong possibility.”
Meanwhile, suffice it to say that Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was less than thrilled that Shanahan, one of his closest friends in football and one of the people who helped accelerate his rise up the NFL coaching ranks, tried to poach his star quarterback. But LaFleur insisted Wednesday that the 49ers’ overtures for Rodgers have done no lasting damage to his friendship with Shanahan.
“Kyle’s a great friend of mine. I haven’t talked to him in a while — it’s just part of the business; you start kind of getting into your own routine — but yeah, absolutely, I hold no ill will towards him,” LaFleur said after practice. “It is what it is. Like, I understand, he’s trying to do whatever he thinks he needs to do for his football team. He’s got a responsibility to everybody in that organization. And if there’s an opportunity, I don’t hold that against him. So, that will have no effect on our relationship.”
Asked about the trade inquiry — which never advanced to the stage of the 49ers even making an offer — Shanahan told Bay Area reporters on Wednesday that the 49ers didn’t expect the talks to go anywhere.
“I thought it would be a quick, ‘No.’ And it wound up exactly what I thought it would be,” Shanahan said. “But you hear enough stuff. Everyone knew what was going on at that time.
“It didn’t seem like it was worth the call, but I know how we would have felt if it was going to happen and we didn’t call. So you call them, and you get a quick answer, which is what you’re expecting, and you move on.”
Rodgers, of course, grew up in northern California with the 49ers as his favorite team and played his college football at the University of California in Berkeley — and was being considered by the 49ers to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft before they zeroed in on Alex Smith instead. So it’s not hard to imagine him perhaps getting his hopes up about such a trade happening, against all odds. And as happens nearly every time the Packers and 49ers have played each other during Rodgers’ time in Green Bay, he was asked Wednesday if returning to the Bay Area means anything special to him.
“It does. That was my team growing up, so of course it does,” Rodgers replied. “I have so many great memories watching those great teams from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s — before many of my teammates were born — and still have a lot of love and affection for the area. Went to college there, still keep in touch with many folks from Cal that I got to meet or play with, and that area will always be special to me, for sure.”
Despite all this serving as the backdrop to a game that could be an early-season playoff preview between the 49ers (2-0) and Packers (1-1), and a crucial measuring stick for a Green Bay outfit that embarrassed itself in a season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints before a get-well-soon win over the lowly Detroit Lions, Rodgers pushed back — hard — on the notion that the offseason melodrama has prevented him from being all-in with this Packers team.
It’s an opinion that ex-Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, a frequent Rodgers critic who rarely surfaces unless it’s to rip his former teammate, articulated recently in an ESPN Radio interview. But there’s a portion of the Packers fan base that also seems to think that after missing the offseason program to demonstrate his unhappiness with the organization and contemplate his future — not to mention his worldwide travels and more Zen approach to life in general — Rodgers’ passion for his teammates, coaches and competition isn’t what it used to be.
“Look,” Rodgers said. “I strongly believe in everybody’s ability to have an opinion, and I respect that the fact that they have an opinion and should have an opinion. My issue is a platform given to individuals who only desire to say inflammatory things that are not based in fact. So partially, I think I would be a little sensitive to people questioning my commitment to this team.
“I said it from the start: If I wasn’t 100% committed to this squad and my team, then I wouldn’t have come back. Now, maybe people thought that was some sort of cliché line or obligatory statement, but it was the truth.
“Now, whether or not you understand my attitude or my off-the-field interests in meditation or a more focused or centered lifestyle, that’s fine. Not everybody’s going to understand that or relate to that or get that. But to use statements like that or things I did in the offseason or my own mental status — that I actually explained many times in this room or in this forum — as the basis for statements around me not caring or not being invested in my team, is not rooted in fact. It’s not correct. And I do enjoy the opportunity to correct misinformation like that.”